History of Wilderness Science

 Wilderness science is a young field of inquiry, with a relatively short history. Most of the pioneers in the field are still alive. The systematic study of wilderness—because it is wilderness and must be managed as such—began in the early 1960's, although a few geologists, biologists and other scientists had conducted earlier studies on lands that were subsequently designated as wilderness. With passage of The Wilderness Act in 1964, federal land managers were given responsibility for a new land designation-- “wilderness”--with a new and unique set of management objectives. Uncertainty about exactly what those objectives were and how to achieve them was a problem. Science was needed, as a foundation for informed stewardship of wilderness.

In 1967, the first institution devoted to wilderness science—Forest Service Research’s Wilderness Management Research Unit—was established in Missoula, Montana. In 1993, this research unit morphed into the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, in an attempt to increase interagency support and cooperation in wilderness science. Meanwhile, academic institutions began teaching courses on wilderness management and contributing to wilderness science, with a few professors specializing in wilderness research.

To preserve the history of wilderness science, we have identified the most prominent wilderness scientists—particularly early ones—and interviewed them. We provide both voice recordings and edited transcripts of these interviews. In addition, we provide a short biography and overview of significant contributions to the field and a list of publications. For several deceased pioneering scientists we include tribute articles.

We also review the history of some of the institutions devoted to wilderness science and their contributions. We recognize that there has been a substantial amount of fire science that is wilderness-relevant, that was not conducted because land is designated as wilderness. Similarly, we recognize that many scientists have studied phenomena of interest in wilderness—wildlife species for example—where the intent is more to understand the phenomenon of interest than to inform wilderness stewardship. We are developing a separate review of these antecedents of research as well. These reviews and several previous articles written about the history of wilderness science are included in a section on history papers.